But Then, There Was Her
Synopsis: Arthur is reminded by his wife, Iris, that their love story will live on even if his memory doesn’t.
(Short story created for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, Round Two; promt: Romance, An Abandoned Building, A Disabled Person)
Arthur noticed his hands moving in a secret dance. His feet heavy against the gravel, the rest of his body stiff. He wasn’t sure where he was. He forced his hands into fists and squeezed his eyes shut hoping that perhaps when he opened them again, he’d be somewhere more familiar. No luck. Arthur blinked a few times and tried to take in his surroundings, searching for a clue to spark his brain into remembering something, anything.
The building before him looked forgotten and abandoned. He saw a faded “For Lease” sign hanging in a crooked tilt on the padlocked entrance. Each window boarded up and left obsolete. The sky behind was dull and gray which only made the forsaken place look less inviting. So why had it called to him?
Arthur saw his memories as marbles in a jar. He ached to grab one with delicate care but every time he did the shape of its round curves against the stacks of others would flatten and escape out of view. He shuddered against the cool air wishing he could be somewhere warm and familiar. Then, like flashes of lightning crossing through his mind, he remembered being in this place. Only it was different. It had been a restaurant. A lively restaurant. Yes. Arthur worked behind the bar crafting drinks and perfecting what he claimed was a flawless margarita. He hadn’t been the most talkative bartender but what he lacked in words he made up for in practiced skill and strong work ethic. He was grateful for the job because the hours allowed him to continue his graduate degree course load while still earning enough money to live and occasionally, have fun. Plus the restaurant always provided a staff meal and secretly allowed him to take leftovers home to his tiny bachelor pad, which proved to be a huge perk for his lifestyle back then. As he had always been more of the quiet, bookish type, the job had also given him a window into a louder and rowdier crowd. From time to time, he enjoyed having his simple solitude disrupted by them while still appreciating the quiet escape of home.
But then, there was her. Iris. Her name was Iris. Arthur’s face bloomed into a smile just thinking of her. Iris was like a walking firework, so much brightness and delight each time she entered a room. Her voice full and compassionate, her laugh deep and endless. Iris was a waitress paying her way through nursing school. Arthur had shyly admired her for weeks, blushing every time she’d beam his way to get a customer a drink, before they had been properly introduced. Her long red hair would be neatly coiled into precise braids for her shift and then each night, she’d ceremoniously unleash them into waved ribbons down her back as she counted her tips and hum along to whatever song had been left on the speakers. It made Arthur think of flames each time he’d watch her hair eagerly catch the light after a long night of work. The effect was always hypnotizing and he’d often find himself dreaming of beautiful, comforting fires. But when she’d shine a smile his way or try to crack a joke in his direction, Arthur would find himself tongue-tied and nervous.
Until one evening, after a long night of work featuring two separate demanding bachelorette parties who kept Arthur busy with elaborate and complicated mixed drinks orders and ridiculously named shots he had to look up in his dusty bartending book, Iris snuck behind the bar after the restaurant had closed, grabbed Arthur’s hand and whispered, “you know I like you too, right?” before brushing her lips against his blushed cheek. Time stood still in that moment. When Arthur finally exhaled he knew the world would never be the same.
And just like that, they became a couple. Iris filling the silences of Arthur’s days with a color and a vibrancy he hadn’t known before. She made each day together feel like a parade of music. And when she wasn’t next to him, the quiet moments he had once embraced and adored made him prickly and anxious. Already impatient for Iris to brighten them again.
Their first kiss had been right outside the restaurant after work. Only a few nights after Iris had openly lit the spark between them. She had initiated this kiss too after Arthur had leaned in and timidly stalled she finally grabbed his shirt and drew him close to her. By the time their mouths touched though, he had found a courage-fueled passion that surprised them both. Arthur knew he would never want to kiss anyone else.
And then just like that, they were in love. The real kind. The type of love that meaningfully punctuates every mundane minute. Every joke is funnier, all treats taste sweeter, and the universe unfolds just for you. It was a beautiful time for Arthur and Iris. The falling part, full of electricity and amusement, longing and laughter. Arthur knew he’d love Iris forever if she’d let him. And he had.
“I thought I’d find you here, old fart.” A voice beside him said. Arthur turned and then there was her. Only she was different. Still a firework in her own right but perhaps a more subtle one now, an older one. Her eyes still sparkled but her hair was now more snow than fire. She wore a sad smile and it broke Arthur’s heart and put it back together at the same time.
“I knew I’d find you here though.” She continued softly, her eyes turning to the deserted building. “I only wish they were open so we could enjoy a margarita.” She turned to Arthur and gave him a wink. And like the shuffling of a deck of cards, more pictures of the past painted in colorful noise and chaos flipped quickly inside his head.
Iris. His Iris, his wife, his love. Their life hadn’t been perfect, of course, but it was theirs. Arthur had become a professor, teaching history at the community college. Iris got a job as a pediatric nurse in a nearby practice. They got married. They had three children. Though only one had been truly “planned”. They fell in love deeper each time as they watched and applauded the other’s parenting efforts, growing together into a stronger team, becoming better people. They got a dog. And then a cat. They argued about getting a snake after their son begged but ultimately decided against it (for the record, Arthur had openly entertained the idea while Iris adamantly opposed it). Instead they got some fish. Then another cat and another dog. And the years passed. They made new friends with their neighbors. They lost those they cared about: first Arthur’s parents and then Iris’s. They kept their careers while attending soccer games and school plays, forever fighting for a work life balance that never came easily. They had both silly and serious fights. They went on vacations to appease their children and yearned for time alone together. But when it came and their kids had moved out, they ached for them in ways they hadn’t anticipated. It had changed them. They eventually found their rhythm again and when they both retired they learned to soak up the shared new free hours by taking new trips, exploring new hobbies, and a daily (and treasured) happy hour featuring Arthur’s talents that had gone unused for so long. Overall, life had been kind and generous to them.
But there had also been an accident. Arthur’s car had been hit and totaled by another driver in an instant of distraction, against the swoosh sound of a sent text message. The impact had been shattering in so many ways. Early responders to the scene believed the crash had ended both drivers’ lives. But Arthur had surprised them by responding to CPR efforts and making it to the hospital. Though no one thought Arthur would ever make it home again.
Iris wouldn’t leave his side. Not when the doctors grimly muttered they didn’t think he’d ever wake up and if he did, she’d be responsible for a vegetable. To which she had responded, through gritted teeth, “then it’s a good thing Arthur and I thought to take up gardening and developed a stronger taste for them” before flipping off that particular pessimistic doctor of the day. Whenever they suggested she return home, she stayed and sang to him; songs they had danced to after their shifts, lullabies that graced their babies to sleep, her own tunes of daily observations, and ballads inspired by their pets because she knew they made him laugh. Arthur was in the hospital for a long time. Iris never gave up on him. Eventually, he did wake up, with Iris’s hand in his.
The doctors warned Iris the accident had left some complications and her husband would never regain full function of his cognitive abilities or his motor skills but she just rolled her eyes and crossed her arms asking when she could take him home. For many more months, Arthur and Iris endured hours of therapy together. He now carried a limp, but Arthur learned to walk again. His speech was still very limited but Iris would remind him with a gentle smirk that she was always better at filling conversations anyway so not much had changed. The hardest part for Arthur was when he remembered that his memories could come and go at random. The very idea of pages from his life’s book being ripped away or reordered could send him down a spiral of sudden rage or desperate sadness.
Arthur’s eyes pooled with tears. He found his tongue was an anchor keeping his words trapped inside his mouth. He was unable to tell Iris all the things he wished so desperately to say. Now that he had a grasp on these memories, he was terrified he wouldn’t be able to hold onto them much longer.
“It’s alright, Arthur. I know, honey. I’ll be here to remember our story. It’ll stay safe and protected.” Iris whispered to him as if reading his fears and snatching them away. “And I love you too.”
Arthur felt his hands starting to take on their own dance again and he looked down at them. How different they looked now from the ones that had once tended a lively bar. Iris smiled.
“You’re making a drink again, huh?” she asked and Arthur stared deeply into her eyes. He felt nothing but warmth and gratitude for this wonderful woman standing next to him, so seen and understood. Iris took one of his hands in hers and they stopped moving. She pulled lightly on his jacket and gave him a soft kiss, right in the place they had once stood together many years ago, at the beginning. And for another moment suspended in time, there they were. Iris and Arthur, two people still living to fall in love with each other.
“Let’s go home, honey.” Iris whispered and Arthur kept his hand fitted with hers. And slowly, but together, the two offered a silent goodbye to their meeting place, and began walking home.